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  Comments (0) Total Wednesday Apr. 23, 2014
An Unreachable Bar?
16 Flathead County schools fail to meet No Child Left Behind Requirements
File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
Letters are going out in the mail this week to parents across the Flathead Valley informing them some area schools are not meeting education requirements set by the state and federal government.

Earlier this month the Montana Office of Public Instruction released the state's annual education progress report as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a law that currently requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Of the 48 schools listed by the OPI in Flathead County, 16 failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in relation to goals set by the state of Montana. Among those 16 schools are both of Kalispell's high schools.

But according to local and state education officials, this isn't an issue unique to Flathead County or Montana and it could become inconsequential if Washington D.C. issues new education policies. Regardless of federal standards, many local educators point to positive trends by students over the last several years that may not be reflected by this one, specific measure.

“Our schools can be improving, but still not meet AYP,” Marcia Sheffels, superintendent for Flathead County, said.

To gauge the progress of a school, students are tested annually in grades third through eighth, as well as 10th grade. Because each district is different, the OPI split some schools and defined them as two for the sake of data gathering. Montana's goal in 2011 was to have 84.4 percent of students proficient in reading and 70 percent of students proficient in math. After the testing data came back it was revealed 85 percent of students in the state were proficient in reading and 68 percent were proficient in math.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said her agency was pleased with the results overall: “Our state has been increasing the bar over time.”

But many individual schools haven't met those standards, including some in Flathead County. At Glacier High School, students exceeded the state goal for reading with an 85 percent proficiency rate, while coming up short in math, with 65 percent proficiency.

At Flathead High School, students again met the state’s goal in reading proficiency at 83 percent, but lagged behind in math, with only 58 percent reaching proficiency. Although the numbers worried Principal Peter Fusaro, he said the school has surpassed goals in other areas.

“Obviously we're all going to be concerned, but this is just a snap shot of one area. I mean look at our other test scores,” he said, adding that his school has often exceeded state standards.

According to Dan Zorn, assistant superintendent for Kalispell public schools, when a school does not meet AYP goals, the district and state will review issues at the school. If those problems continue, parents are informed by letter. At the same time, assistance in reevaluating the school's goals becomes available from the state. Those are currently the steps being taken at Flathead High School, which hasn't made AYP in four years.

It isn’t unusual for schools to miss AYP, according to Zorn, but they shouldn't be judged based upon one superlative.

“Sure it concerns us ... I mean we're working hard but we do feel good about the progress we've made,” Zorn said, adding there are still plenty of areas to improve.

For Juneau, assessing progress is key to judging the quality of Montana's schools. Yet she sees some of the federal goals – specifically the 100 percent proficiency by 2014 – as just unattainable.

“There is going to be no school that's going to meet 100 percent by 2014; it's a ridiculous bar,” she said. “It's not going to happen.”

According to Zorn, one of the reasons some schools haven't met those goals is that students with special education needs are included in the overall data.

“They're expecting proficiency by a group of students who are defined by their lack of proficiency,” Zorn said.

Sheffels said the plan No Child Left Behind imposes on schools just doesn't work and like other educators, she doesn't think the 2014 goal is realistic.

“All students aren't able to learn at the same rate,” she said. “It's idealistic and wonderful in theory, but children's learning styles don't necessarily fit so neatly into this one-size-fits-all plan.”

Sheffels is concerned the general public and parents may not be familiar with the inherent complexities of No Child Left Behind, and cautioned that if a school doesn't meet the annual progress goals, it doesn't mean the school is doing poorly.

Both Fusaro and Zorn touted successes at area schools, including high marks on other standardized tests and graduation rates.

The looming 2014 deadline could become less of an issue after the White House announced last week it would sidestep a plan, which has been inactive in Congress for over a year, and begin to offer waivers relieving states of certain obligations of the law. Among those aspects is the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency. States would qualify for the waiver so long as they remain dedicated to education reform.

Juneau said she didn't know if Montana would apply for one of the waivers, adding she wanted more information before making a final decision.
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